Author: Helen C. Rountree

professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005)
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Towns and Town Life in Early Virginia Indian Society

Much of what is known about towns and town life in early Virginia Indian society is drawn from archaeological investigation, the observations of English settlers, and the work of Captain John Smith, who between 1607 and 1609 explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay area. Through a combination of these sources, we know that most Virginia Indian towns were located close to fertile soil and along waterways, which were both a source of food and drinking water and a means of transport. Towns generally conformed to one of two layouts: a dispersed settlement pattern, in which the houses were scattered according to which fields were being cultivated at the time; and a nucleated settlement pattern, in which a palisade surrounds a tightly packed group of houses. The latter layout was usually found in frontier areas, where the threat of attack by enemy tribes was greater. Indian towns were busy, intensely social places and each resident, regardless of age or sex, was expected to play a particular role. This resulted in a tight-knit community that could be supportive, but constricting. Privacy was limited, so great emphasis was placed on manners and politeness and on releasing tension through a nightly group activity like singing and dancing. The quality of life in Indian towns declined in Virginia after the English arrived and began to encroach on Indian land.

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Pocahontas (d. 1617)

Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, paramount chief of an alliance of Virginia Indians in Tidewater Virginia. An iconic figure in American history, Pocahontas is largely known for saving the life of the Jamestown colonist John Smith and then romancing him—although both events are unlikely to be true. She did meet Smith several times, sometimes serving as Powhatan’s silent figurehead and a symbolic liaison between the chief and the English colonists; she was not, however, a “princess” or a diplomat in any modern sense. Sometime around 1610, she married an Indian named Kocoum, and in 1613 she was captured by the English and confined at Jamestown, where she converted to Christianity and married the colonist John Rolfe. The marriage, approved by Powhatan, brought an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614) and set the stage for Pocahontas’s visit to London in 1616. At the request of the Virginia Company of London, she met both King James I and the bishop of London, after which she reunited briefly with Smith. Early in her return voyage to Virginia, she became ill and died at Gravesend in March 1617. In the centuries since, Pocahontas’s life has slipped into myth, serving to represent Virginia’s early claim to be the foundation-place of America. Many elite Virginians, meanwhile, have tenuously claimed her as a relative, even leading to a “Pocahontas clause” in the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

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Personal Names by Early Virginia Indians, Uses of

Early Virginia Indians—the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco, in particular, and possibly other groups—used multiple personal names. Although these names had specific meanings, most were not translated by English colonists at Jamestown, and many of those meanings have been lost. Often, Indians held more than one name simultaneously, with different names used in different situations. Pocahontas, for instance, had a formal given name; a “secret,” or highly personal name; and nicknames that were updated throughout her life, sometimes commenting on her personality or her position within the community. Indian men and boys were expected to earn names that described their feats as hunters and warriors. Chiefs, such as Powhatan, often took new names when assuming power and sometimes even changed their names again after that. After the mid-seventeenth century, Virginia Indians began to adopt English first names, which they sometimes paired with shortened versions of their Indian names.

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Opechancanough (d. 1646)

Opechancanough was paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of Virginia Indians, and famously led massive assaults against the English colonists in 1622 and 1644. The younger brother (or cousin) of Powhatan, who was paramount chief at the time of the Jamestown landing in 1607, Opechancanough was possibly chief of the Youghtanund Indians and, as such, protected one of Tsenacomoco’s most critical territories. Still, when another chief seduced his favorite wife, neither Opechancanough nor Powhatan had the power to return her. Although the colonist John Smith portrayed Opechancanough as immediately hostile to the English, the chief actually treated Smith well upon the Englishman’s capture. As Powhatan aged, Opechancanough filled the apparent power vacuum, and while he did not immediately become paramount chief upon Powhatan’s death in 1618, he appeared to wield the most power. He organized a large-scale assault on the English colonists in March 1622, starting the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632); another assault, this time in April 1644, inaugurated the much shorter Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646), which ended with Opechancanough’s capture. Neither attack deterred English expansion, and Opechancanough died in English custody. By early in the 1700s, the defeated Powhatans were distancing themselves from his memory, and popular writing about him since has tended to downplay his military and diplomatic achievements.

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Marriage in Early Virginia Indian Society

What is known of marriage in early Virginia Indian society is limited to the observations of Jamestown colonists, visiting English observers, and later American historians, and is mostly applicable to the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans of Tsenacomoco, a paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two groups living in Tidewater Virginia. Marriage was crucial for survival in Indian society, because men and women needed to work as partners in order to accomplish their many daily and seasonal tasks. The man initiated courtship and looked for a woman who would perform her assigned tasks well. The woman could decline a marriage offer, but if she did choose to accept it, her parents also needed to approve the offer. The groom’s parents, meanwhile, paid a bridewealth, or marriage payment, to the bride’s parents to compensate them for her lost labor. Men were allowed to have additional wives, so long as the husband could afford to provide for them; for chiefs especially, these wives served as symbols of wealth. It is estimated that the paramount chief Powhatan (Wahunsonacock) had as many as one hundred wives during his lifetime. While a man’s first marriage was expected to last for life, additional marriages were likely negotiated for shorter terms. Unless a woman was married to a chief, she was allowed to conduct extramarital affairs, provided she had her husband’s permission (which was usually given). Punishment for dishonesty on this score could be severe, however. Virginia Indians held onto their marriage traditions long after contact with the English, and marriage between Indians and the English was rare.

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Manners and Politeness in Early Virginia Indian Society

Manners and politeness, as dictated by custom, were an important aspect of early Virginia Indian society. What is known about the subject is limited to the observations of Jamestown colonists, visiting English observers, and later American historians, and is mostly applicable to the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco, a paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two groups in Tidewater Virginia. Although regulation among the Virginia Indians tended to be informal, the line between good and bad manners was nevertheless clear and the consequences for crossing it were severe. The Powhatans did not tolerate interruptions in formal situations, and tended to refrain from speaking until the appropriate moment. In instances of minor personal conflict, they chose either to withdraw from the situation or to bear any imposition without complaint. Powhatan society had various outlets for aggression and frustration, but in the end, self-control, even under torture, was most valued.

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Law and Justice in Early Virginia Indian Society

Law and justice in early Virginia Indian society were not well understood by English observers, whose main concern was replacing the native system with their own. William Strachey wrote that the Indians ruled not by “posetive lawes,” but by custom, and Henry Spelman, who lived among the Patawomeck Indians and spoke their language, wrote that he thought that the “Infidels wear [were] lawless” until he witnessed five of them brutally executed by being beaten and thrown into a fire. In fact, most of what is known about the laws and punishments among the Powhatan Indians can be reduced to a series of often graphically violent anecdotes in which men and women are killed for the crimes of infanticide, stealing, carrying on unsanctioned affairs, and even interrupting a weroance, or chief, while he is speaking. Powhatan custom demanded that revenge be exacted for wrongs against the person and against the chiefdom; the chiefs and paramount chief were powerless to intervene. This led to nearly constant, small-scale warfare, but it also caused problems with the English. Whenever a slight was made against an Indian, revenge was likely and was sometimes directed at the entire group rather than just at the individual. In the end, the English copied this practice, passing a law in 1641 giving colonists the power to hold otherwise innocent Indians hostage when the guilty party eluded capture.

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Languages and Interpreters in Early Virginia Indian Society

Early Virginia Indians spoke dialects of Algic, Iroquoian, or Siouan, three large linguistic families that include many of the more than eight hundred indigenous languages in North America. Among Virginia’s Algic-speakers were the Powhatan Indians, who lived in the Tidewater and encountered the Jamestown settlers in 1607. Little is known of their language—a form of Algic known as Virginia Algonquian—although Captain John Smith and William Strachey both composed influential vocabulary lists. The Nottoways and the Meherrins lived south of the James near the fall line and spoke Iroquoian. Although the Meherrin language was never recorded, it has been identified as Iroquoian based on geography. In 1820, John Wood interviewed the elderly Nottoway “queen” Edie Turner and created a word list that eventually was recognized as Iroquoian. Virginia’s Siouan-speakers, meanwhile, largely lived west of the fall line and included the Monacans, the Mannahoacs, and the Saponis. Many Virginia Indians, encouraged by the requirements of trade, diplomacy, and warfare, spoke multiple languages, and when the English arrived, they and the Powhatans eagerly exchanged boys to learn each other’s language and serve as interpreters. By the twentieth century, most if not all Virginia Indian languages had become extinct, meaning that no native speakers survived. In 2005, the Terrence Malick film The New World presented a form of Algonquian based on the Smith and Strachey lists and the work of the linguist Blair Rudes.

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Games by Early Virginia Indians, Uses of

Early Virginia Indians played a variety of games, with some of these games reserved especially for men and others for women, girls, and boys. The men and boys had wrestling, footraces, and a game that resembled modern-day football, but the rules were never described in detail by the Jamestown colonists and later English settlers who observed them played among the Powhatan Indians. Gambling among Indian men, along with alcohol consumption, seems to have increased as a form of escapism with the arrival of the Europeans and was made worse by the availability of European trade goods. That behavior seems to have waned over time, however, and was not observed in the twentieth- or twenty-first-century Virginia Indian communities.

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Fishing and Shellfishing by Early Virginia Indians

Virginia Indians living around the Chesapeake Bay and other people living along the bays and rivers of the Chesapeake region have long relied on harvesting fish and shellfish. Lacking long-handled tongs, Indian boys encountered by the Jamestown colonists dived for oysters in the Chesapeake, in addition to gathering clams and mussels and turning the byproducts of consumption into jewelry. Hard clamshells were crafted into cylinders and beaded, and by the seventeenth century this so-called wampum was being used as money. Indians fished using rods, line, and bone crafted into fishhooks; in shallow water, they speared fish with javelins. Spying Atlantic sturgeon asleep on the water’s surface, Indians sometimes noosed the giant fish, requiring them to hold on, at risk to life and limb, as the sturgeon darted and dived in an attempt to escape. Powhatan Indians also used small fires, set in hearths aboard canoes, to throw bright lights and attract fish close enough to the surface and to the boat to be speared. Weirs and V-shaped rock dams also trapped fish. Ill-equipped to feed themselves, the English colonists generally expressed surprise and admiration at the Virginia Indians’ expertise in fishing, eventually hiring Indian men to do the job for them.

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Diet in Early Virginia Indian Society

Diet in early Virginia Indian society changed significantly from the Ice Age to the English colonists’ landing at Jamestown in 1607, from initially relying more on meat to over time increasingly combining wild game, fish, nuts, and berries. The Indians’ eating patterns were shaped by the seasons, and for the Powhatans there were five, not four. In the early and mid-spring (cattapeuk), they ate migrating fish and planted crops. From late in the spring until mid-summer (cohattayough), they split their time between the towns, where they weeded the fields, and the forests, where they foraged. Late summer (nepinough) was harvest time, and the autumn and early winter (taquitock) the occasion for feasts and religious rituals. This marked a second time in the year when the Indians abandoned their towns, this time for communal hunts. Meats were prepared and stored for the late winter and early spring (popanow), when shortages made life difficult and even dangerous. “They be all of them huge eaters,” the colonist William Strachey observed of the Powhatans, but the Indians also lived intensely physical lives, requiring a large number of calories. Their metabolisms, meanwhile, were slow enough to store nutrients and then, during shortages, use them slowly while the people remained active. The colonist John Smith described the Powhatans as living “hand to mouth,” but they were often better fed than the colonists with a diet that was low in fat, sugar, and salt, and high in protein and fiber.

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